Tabloid Psychoanalysis

By D. Harlan WilsonOctober 8, 2016

Tabloid Psychoanalysis

The Divine Madness of Philip K. Dick by Kyle Arnold

THE CONCEPT OF TRANSFERENCE in psychoanalysis refers to an anomaly in the relationship between the analyst and analysand that develops over the course of treatment. In Studies on Hysteria, Freud explains that it happens “[i]f the patient is frightened at finding that she is transferring on to the figure of the physician the distressing ideas which arise from the content of the analysis.” This can be detrimental to the psychoanalytic procedure, even if such transference is inevitable. Ideally the analyst and analysand will cultivate an awareness of this veritable elephant in the room and address the matter if either party feels inhibited, deflected, suppressed, or otherwise influenced.

Transference is a slippery, subjective phenomenon — like love, it evades concrete definition and fluctuates in intensity. There is, however, one surefire way to avoid it: never meet the patient.

Freud famously diagnosed paranoid schizophrenic Daniel Paul Schreber without ever encountering him in person. Instead, he read Memoirs of My Nervous Illness, Schreber’s account of his psychotic breakdowns, and drew conclusions from it. In “Psychoanalytic Notes Upon an Autobiographical Account of a Case of Paranoia,” Freud includes a disclaimer explaining why he didn’t need to meet Schreber: “Since paranoiacs cannot be compelled to overcome their internal resistances, and since in any case they only say what they choose to say, it follows that this is precisely a disorder in which a written report or a printed case history can take the place of personal acquaintance with the patient.” Hence Freud produces what is essentially a work of literary criticism.

In The Divine Madness of Philip K. Dick, Kyle Arnold has followed in Freud’s footsteps, psychoanalyzing a similarly pathological subject on a grander scale under the same pretenses. Philip K. Dick is dead, alas … Arnold diagnoses PKD’s well-known paranoid delusions by looking at his vast body of fiction and nonfiction, and he concludes that his life and literature are byproducts of excessive drug use and traumatic events that occurred during his formative years. On the whole, though, Arnold comes off as a stereotypical clinician who has little artistic sensibility or experience with the creative process.

There’s no doubt that PKD had serious problems, but Arnold is hell-bent on pathologizing him, trying to expose the root causes of those problems by reading his work, as if the literature holds the skeleton key to the “real” man. PKD’s science fiction — its unconventionality, its idiosyncrasies, and ultimately its innovation and originality — is reduced to a shadow of his real-life derangement and trauma. Of course PKD’s real life factored into his writing, but Arnold, making little concession for the imagination and the art of crafting fiction, tries to pin PKD (the actual man and the Joe Chip he recycles) to the hermeneutic corkboard, taking boyish glee in connecting and constellating dots like a mad (pseudo)scientist. This all would be quite fun if Arnold weren’t dead serious.

I'm not saying that I didn’t enjoy the book. I like reading tabloid news and TMZ, and that, to my mind, is what The Divine Madness of Philip K. Dick approaches: tabloid psychoanalysis sensationalizing the dark side of PKD and capitalizing on the popularity of books about the author, which almost always sell. For Oxford University Press, Arnold’s book is a no-brainer; it will generate interest and returns. For Phildickian scholars and fans — especially critics familiar with key works like Lawrence Sutin’s Divine Invasions, Paul Williams’s Only Apparently Real, and Emmanuel Carrère’s I Am Alive and You Are Dead — it may not resonate, despite Arnold’s ostensible research, competence in his field of study, and lucid prose. 

Arnold makes his methodology clear in the first chapter. He foregrounds the visionary experiences that Dick experienced in February and March of 1974, the episode (often referred to as 2-3-74) that incited The Exegesis, PKD’s 8,000-page diagrammatic/diuretic effort to flesh/flush these visions out. “My approach to Dick is broadly phenomenological,” he writes, “meaning that I delve deeply into his subjective frame of reference.” Here is the first red flag. Hanging his hat on the ornamental, undergraduate expression “delve deeply,” Arnold suggests that he has the ability to tap into PKD’s subjectivity by reading his creative writing. Even in the presence of an analysand, with direct access to his or her words, subjectivity never belongs to anyone but the body and mind that houses it; the best an “outsider” can do is interpret it with the metaphor of language.

Arnold continues: “I linger over the details of his inner life, in all its twists and turns. I spend more time describing Dick’s psychology, bringing out its meaning from within, than explaining it.” Another flag. Any “details” of PKD’s “inner life” that he examines are extracted from PKD’s writing, the bulk of which is fiction, and even at his most nonfictional, PKD remained a storyteller and flaunted a sense of playfulness. It’s true that Arnold spends more time on description than explanation, mapping a psychological topography that he excavates in bits and pieces from the work. He just doesn’t demonstrate a clear understanding that the topography is at least in part a projection and invention of his own.

I didn’t learn anything particularly new from Arnold’s descriptions of PKD’s life and scenes from his stories and novels, but I did find a kind of low-level jouissance in being reminded about how strange, mad, enigmatic, and downright horrible PKD was as a person, beating his wife one moment, becoming God the next in a solipsistic fit. It can be difficult not to wince, however, at his conclusions: “Dick was training his mind to transmute reality into fiction,” he writes about “Retreat Syndrome,” a story concerning the sublimation of his boyhood fear of abandonment and rejection.

Arnold covers the last two decades of PKD’s life, paying special attention to 2-3-74 and its aftermath. In each chapter, he discusses a problem or set of circumstances, among them the early death of PKD’s twin sister; the troubled relationships with his mother, father, and wives; various spiritual experiences and proxies (e.g., “beetle satori,” “the pink light,” “Zebra,” “the golden rectangle,” “the Xerox missive”); government paranoia and the “counterfeit burglary” of his house; the ghost of Bishop Pike; and the dawn, composition, and aftermath of The Exegesis. Arnold identifies a “key narrative arc” that recurs in PKD’s life and fiction — “inhumane authority figures who want you dead, a deadly doubling, and a miraculous yet equivocal rescue” — all of which were instigated by the building blocks (or, following Žižek, we might say the building blots) of his upbringing and later perpetuated by “his voracious consumption of speed.”

PKD’s drug use is well-known and well-documented. Arnold made me even more aware of the scope of his intake and addiction; he would have made most users and abusers look tame by comparison. PKD’s girlfriend Nancy Hackett recounts that “Dick took up to seventy pills a day, including Valium, tranquilizers, and antipsychotic medications, as well as his ever-expanding regimen of amphetamines.” I’m not quite sure where Arnold found this quote; he cites some source material in the text, and provides a short “Notes on Sources” appendix, but a number of areas lack careful, formal documentation.

Whatever their impetuses, the “nervous illnesses” of both PKD and Daniel Paul Schreber culminated in megalomania and the belief that they were messianic figures capable of spearheading new religions. Freud’s diagnosis of Schreber as a latent homosexual involves stereotypical assumptions about sexuality; in all likelihood, he would have ended up in the same place with PKD. Arnold practices an antiquated mode of inquiry and demonstrates no awareness of postmodern thought (no Lacan, no Deleuze and Guattari). He attributes PKD’s psychoses to drugs and “spiritual longing,” and he does not believe they had anything to do with a schizophrenic condition.

In the last, titular chapter, “Divine Madness,” Arnold hands down his final judgment:

All the symptoms some Dick scholars cite as evidence of schizophrenia can be explained by the amphetamine psychosis we know, beyond a shadow of a doubt, Dick had. Moreover, Dick’s professional productivity and his style of relating to others don’t match the typical presentation of bona fide schizophrenia. Despite bouts of psychosis, Dick was able to write forty-four novels and 121 short stories during his lifetime […] [T]he clinical themes that stand out in his life are trauma and addiction. […] Dick was not psychologically impaired during 2-3-74. If anything he made better decisions and took better care of himself than usual. By definition, an improvement in functioning can’t be considered a sign of mental illness.

This makes sense. The idea that PKD had a unique type of frontal lobe epilepsy (and that a seizure brought about 2-3-74) makes sense, too. Arnold effectively subverts years of speculation about PKD’s neurological state. But for what reason? And to what end? Freud had a variety of worthwhile motives for writing about Schreber, namely the exploration and development of his emergent theory of paranoia. As a psychologist, Arnold’s only agenda seems to be to annul the notion that PKD had a mental disease and to confine him to the prison cell of the holy Oedipal family, mommy-daddy-me, while giving primacy to outmoded forms of literary analysis (e.g., biographical criticism and the importance of authorial intent). To some degree, psychoanalysis is the problem, and Arnold is guilty of psychoanalytic tunnel-vision by default. Schizoanalytic techniques would have served him so much better, as a psychologist and a de facto literary analyst, especially with a postmodern subject like PKD.

The book seems to have little reason for being beyond capitalizing on the growing popularity of PKD’s life and works. It is not a moral treatise on the dangers of drug abuse. Arnold doesn’t offer any new material that Sutin, Williams, and Carrère haven’t already delivered in better formats from more compelling angles. His final deduction — that 2-3-74 and The Exegesis stemmed from PKD having “a spiritual opening that resulted in a powerful yet temporary transcendence of his problems in living,” rather than a schizoaffective hallucination — doesn’t merit a book-length exegesis. Rather than illuminate anything novel or interesting about PKD, The Divine Madness of Philip K. Dick reveals, instead, Arnold’s own shortcomings as a critic and analyst.


D. Harlan Wilson is a professor of English at Wright State University-Lake Campus, the reviews editor for Extrapolation, and the editor-in-chief of Anti-Oedipus Press.

LARB Contributor

D. Harlan Wilson is a professor of English at Wright State University–Lake Campus, the reviews editor of Extrapolation, and the editor-in-chief of Anti-Oedipus Press. He is the author of over 30 books of fiction and nonfiction, including scholarly monographs on the life and work of J. G. Ballard (University of Illinois Press), Steven Spielberg’s Minority Report (Auteur Publishing), and Alfred Bester’s The Stars My Destination (Palgrave Macmillan). Visit Wilson online at


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